Martin Friedman, the director of the Walker Art Center from 1961 to 1990, passed away May 9, 2016, at age 90. In commemoration of his pivotal role in shaping the Walker’s values, vision, and future, curator Joan Rothfuss shares her perspective on Friedman’s life and legacy.
When I first met Martin Friedman, I didn’t realize that, in a sense, I already knew him. I had moved to Minnesota in 1974 to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I’d come from Dayton, Ohio, which had no contemporary art museum, so the Walker was a revelation for me. On one of my first visits, I encountered Robert Irwin putting the finishing touches on a scrim and light installation. Out of practically nothing, it seemed, Irwin had made light feel palpable—a near magical feat that stopped me in my tracks. In 1978, I was dazzled by Noguchi’s Imaginary Landscapes, a gorgeous exhibition that introduced me to an artist whose practice ranged from studio sculpture, lamps, and tables to décor for dance and designs for urban parks and playgrounds. I spent some of my meager student dollars to buy a copy of the show’s catalogue, which is still on my shelf, now well thumbed. In 1979, I was in the audience for the world premiere of Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy, which was danced in front of a shifting photographic backdrop designed by Robert Rauschenberg. And in 1983, I splurged on tickets for the opening of Hockney Paints the Stage. I was by then out of college and working as a freelance theater set designer, and Hockney’s re-creations of his designs for the opera both enchanted and inspired me. It wasn’t until 1988, when Martin asked me during a job interview to talk about my favorite Walker moments, that I learned he had been behind them all.
During his 31 years at the Walker, Martin, as most everyone called him, conjured memorable moments for hundreds of thousands of visitors. Under his leadership, the Walker presented the best in contemporary painting, sculpture, dance, music, film, and performance; brought dozens of artists to the region for commissions, residencies, lectures, and performances; and nurtured a generation of collectors and arts patrons who continue to vigorously support the Walker and other local arts institutions. Martin oversaw the construction of a new building and developed a beloved new public space, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. It is, in fact, hard to overstate his contribution to the quality of cultural life in the Twin Cities, although he himself gave much of the credit to the traditions and aspirations of his audience. “In Minneapolis, the great mass of the public is tolerant and interested, and there is a layer, an informed intellectual layer, we could look to,” he said. “I came on the scene at a propitious time.”
Martin Friedman arrived in Minneapolis in 1958 after being recruited by Walker director H. Harvard Arnason for a curatorial post. At the time, Martin was just finishing a fellowship at the Musée royal du Congo Belge (now the Musée royal de l’Afrique central) near Brussels. He had studied art history at UCLA and become deeply interested in what was then called primitive art; in Brussels, he immersed himself in the museum’s holdings of African art, later publishing several scholarly papers on objects in the collection. African sculpture, in particular, remained a lifelong passion. When I met him, he still had a large, rather intimidating Senufo mask from Ivory Coast on display in his office. But by the time Arnason called in 1958, Martin already knew that contemporary art was his true vocation.
Although he had no curatorial experience when he arrived at the Walker, Martin distinguished himself immediately. His first major exhibition, School of Paris 1959: The Internationals (1959), presented new work by eight abstract painters based in Paris. This was followed by The Precisionist View in American Art (1960), which looked at homegrown painters who worked in pared-down, semi-abstract styles, including Ralston Crawford, Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Sheeler. The show earned high praise from the critic Hilton Kramer, who pronounced it an eye-opening reassessment that “significantly altered our perspective on American art between the two World Wars.” Martin was at work on his next big project, a survey of new art from Brazil, when Arnason announced that he was leaving the Walker for a post at the Guggenheim Museum. Martin was appointed his successor, and he became, at 36 years of age, one of the youngest museum directors in the country.
One of his first priorities was to streamline the exhibition program by focusing on solo shows with living artists and group shows built around a strong thematic framework. During his first decade as director, the Walker mounted solo exhibitions devoted to dozens of contemporary painters, sculptors, photographers, and architects, including Charles Biederman, Marcel Breuer, Lucio Fontana, Adolph Gottlieb, Jerome Liebling, Matta, Katherine Nash, George Ortman, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Robert Rauschenberg, and Tony Smith. Group shows included London: The New Scene (1965), which featured David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Joe Tilson, and other young British artists; 14 Sculptors: The Industrial Edge (1969), a look at minimalist tendencies in recent sculpture; and Light/Motion/Space (1967), the first major show to present light and motion as artistic media, with works by Chryssa, Nam June Paik, Julio Le Parc, and Otto Piene. Martin continued the practice of putting the Walker’s exhibitions on the road, a strategy that both expanded their audiences and raised funds to offset the expense of mounting them. The scholarly catalogues produced for many of these exhibition are essential historical documents of the period, and they helped to establish Martin, who authored essays in several of them, as a rare type: a museum director who was also a first-rate curator and scholar.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Walker’s exhibitions became even more ambitious. Martin himself curated American Indian Art: Form and Tradition (1972), Naives and Visionaries (1974), and The River: Images of the Mississippi (1976). With his wife, Mickey, he organized Tokyo: Form and Spirit (1986), an enormous and rather quirky presentation of historical Japanese art objects and their contemporary descendants. There were solo shows featuring Jean Dubuffet, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Jan Dibbets, and Jasper Johns, and scholarly projects such as De Stijl: 1917–1931, Visions of Utopia (1982), on the Dutch art and design movement, and Marcel Broodthaers (1989), the first retrospective of the important Belgian conceptualist. For emerging artists, there was the exhibition series Viewpoints, which presented dozens of artists during its 18-year run, from 1977 to 1995.
Martin’s curatorial eye was superlative, but he also was probably the best exhibition designer of any director or curator of his generation. His imaginative use of architecture, color, lighting, exhibition furniture, and multimedia made walking through his exhibitions like being transported to another world. Even when a touring exhibition came to the Walker, he made sure to put his stamp on the installation. (The staff called it “Martinizing.”) The spectacle of his exhibitions had a purpose beyond visual pleasure, however. He was passionate about making contemporary art accessible to everyone, even people who thought they didn’t know enough to understand it. “Contemporary art can be a thrilling experience,” he said. “You don’t need a course if you’re just not afraid.” He never pandered, but he was not averse to using extravagant installations to seduce those wary viewers, all in the name of sharing that thrill experience with everyone.
Martin’s commitment to education extended to personally mentoring his staff. He was known for training young curators for a few years and then gently pushing them out of the nest, thus populating dozens of American museums with Walker alumni. (Another staff aphorism: “No one ever dies at the Walker.”) One of Martin’s pet initiatives was the Arts Museum Education Training Program, a curatorial/education internship program he started in 1973. That was the position he hired me for in 1988, when I was fresh out of grad school and as callow as I could be. We interns did some photocopying and filing, of course, but most of our time was spent on work that was far more substantive. We assisted some of the best curators in the business on complex exhibition projects, and along the way we did a lot of writing: gallery labels, calendar copy, press releases, and scripts for the introductory slide shows that contextualized each exhibition. Martin especially enjoyed helping his interns improve their writing skills. He often summoned me into the office common area, where I would stand next to him and watch as his red pencil flew over my text. “You’re not writing for Artforum,” he would say, meaning that he had no use for the dense, theoretical writing that filled art journals and graduate school theses during the 1980s. He wanted texts that illuminated rather than obscured the art on view. I learned a lot during those editing sessions, and Martin’s own lucid prose became my personal gold standard for graceful, perceptive writing about art.
Martin’s most lasting gift to this community might be the two brick-and-mortar projects he completed during his tenure. The first was a new museum building designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, which replaced the structure that had been the Walker’s home since it opened in 1927. Barnes’s building is an elegant, red brick tower containing a series of white-cube galleries inspired by the spacious loft studio spaces of the day. The building opened in 1971 and immediately garnered international acclaim. “Barnes’s building is no architect’s oppressive ego trip,” wrote the art historian and critic Barbara Rose. “It is rather a building designed on a human scale for people to move through at a leisurely pace and for artists to show works in without having to compete with the architecture… The Walker is one of the few new museums genuinely adequate to current needs.” To open the building, Martin commissioned 21 artists, including four from the Twin Cities, to respond to Barnes’s architectural design with new, site-specific works. The resulting exhibition, Works for New Spaces (1971), looks in retrospect like a bold, even intrepid signal that, from that point on, the Walker’s primary commitment would be to the art of the moment.
As soon as the Barnes building opened, Martin began planning his next building project, a sculpture garden to be situated on 11 acres of undeveloped parkland across the street from the museum. The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a collaborative project between the Walker and the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, opened to the public in 1988 with 14 classic bronze artworks from the Walker’s collection and 11 newly commissioned works. It has since become one of the region’s top destinations for tourists and locals alike. They come to stroll its art-lined gravel walkways, watch outdoor performances and film screenings, play on artist-designed mini golf courses, or snap a self-portrait in front of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s beloved Spoonbridge and Cherry. The Garden is open, accessible, and free, the fulfillment of Martin’s goal to make the Walker a welcoming place in which to experience the art of our time.
The Walker’s collection—deep, broad, and robustly interdisciplinary—was shaped in large part by Martin’s vision. Already by 1969, he was working toward a collection that was not merely a visual index of current art activity, but one built on deep holdings of pieces by major artists. Faced with a limited budget, he bought affordable artwork by living artists at the beginning of their careers and fostered relationships with many who are now well-represented in the collection, including Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, and Frank Stella. Long associations with performing artists such as Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Wilson were built on commissions, a practice that turned the Walker into a laboratory for artists. In 2004, in the course of preparing a new handbook on the collection, I asked Martin about what I called the “risky” practice of commissioning art. “I never thought of it as a risk,” he told me. “It just seemed to me that giving artists opportunities to make new work was something the museum should do. I never knew how things were going to work out—I was just as curious as the next person, and it was an adventure for all of us.” Not surprisingly, artists adored Martin. Claes Oldenburg regards him as a collaborator who inspired with his enthusiasm and “complex vision.” Another longtime friend, Chuck Close, credits Martin with launching his career in 1969 with the purchase of Big Self-Portrait, and he thinks of the Walker as a rare kind of institution: an “artists’ museum” whose staff is deeply committed not only to art but also to the people who make it.
Friedman left the Walker in 1990, but he did not retire from the art world. Almost immediately, he was hired by Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City to assist them with acquisitions for their new sculpture park. He also served as art advisor and curator for the art program at New York’s Madison Square Park. (He liked to joke that he had become the art world’s “yard man.”) In 1994, he curated Landscape as Metaphor: Visions of America in the Late 20th Century for the Denver Art Museum, and in 2000 he organized an outdoor exhibition, Joel Shapiro: Sculpture, for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. Among his post-Walker publications is the book Close Reading: Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait (Abrams, 2005). He has been much honored for his lifelong dedication to the arts. The Walker’s Friedman Gallery was named in honor of both Martin and Mickey in 2005 by an anonymous couple who had made a major gift in support of the institution’s capital campaign at that time. In 1989, Martin was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President George H. W. Bush, and in 2012 the Madison Square Park Conservancy created a permanent, endowed curatorial post named in his honor.
One of Martin’s former curators, Richard Koshalek, has called him a “shaman.” It’s a strong metaphor, and one Martin would not have liked, but I’m not sure it’s an overstatement of his powers. We all looked to him for leadership and stood in awe of his vision. He will be deeply missed.
Joan Rothfuss is an independent writer and curator based in Minneapolis. From 1988 to 2006 she was a curator at the Walker Art Center, where she organized exhibitions on Joseph Beuys, Bruce Conner, Jasper Johns, and Fluxus, among others. Her many publications include the books Time Is Not Even, Space Is Not Empty: Eiko & Koma (Walker Art Center, 2011) and Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman (MIT, 2014). She holds a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and an MA from the University of Minnesota.